HOPE bill would restore funds for technical college students

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Two state lawmakers are hoping to increase the HOPE grant award for technical college students so it pays their full tuition, as it did in the past.

The bill’s sponsors, state Reps. Stacey Evans, D-Smyrna, and Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, say the legislation restores aid to technical college students that was cut two years ago.

About 85,000 technical college students receive the HOPE grant, which currently covers about 74 percent of students’ tuition. Increasing the grant is likely to cost $30 million a year, according to the Georgia Student Finance Commission, which administers the lottery-funded HOPE program.

To pay for the increase, Evans wants the lottery to put a higher percentage of ticket sales toward education programs.

“This would require from a 1 percent to a 1.5 percent lottery contribution increase, which we don’t think would be detrimental to lottery operations,” Evans said. “Georgia’s industry needs more technical graduates. … This is a way to get them back and get them graduated and get them working.”

Lottery officials have said increasing the percentage going to education would mean less money for prizes and could stifle ticket sales.

In 2011, to prevent the HOPE program from going broke, lawmakers approved a plan pushed by Gov. Nathan Deal to restructure HOPE. The new rules raised the required grade-point average for technical college students to keep their HOPE grant and reduced award payouts that had previously paid all of a student’s tuition costs. Evans began a campaign early in 2012 to restore the lower GPA requirement for tech students, and legislation was approved during the 2013 session.

Ehrhart and Evans’ bill does not affect the HOPE scholarship, which serves students in the University System of Georgia and also fell under tighter restrictions as part of the 2011 restructuring.

Ehrhart, chairman of the House Budget subcommittee on higher education, said technical colleges lost students because they couldn’t afford to pay for school without the full HOPE grant.

“There were some unintended consequences in the original HOPE bill,” he said. “You lost a bunch of students because of some of the changes.”

Ehrhart said he doesn’t necessarily expect to get what’s called for in the bill next year — the full 100 percent tuition for HOPE recipients — because of the cost. But he thinks Deal will work with the bill’s sponsors to get some kind of increase for HOPE grant recipients. The ultimate goal is to get back to full tuition for grant recipients in the future.

“I have learned over the years that you can make incremental changes,” he said. “If you ask for less than you want to see happen, then you get half of that.”

Democrats have been critical of cutbacks in the HOPE program, but the Republican Ehrhart said it’s important to note that he and Evans, a Democrat, have been working together on the grant issue.

“If you want to make it a political issue, you are throwing these kids under the bus,” he said.

The HOPE program is likely to be a key issue in the legislative session when it begins next month. Deal, who is running for re-election, is already being criticized by Democratic challenger Jason Carter about the changes made in 2011.

Michael Light, a spokesman for the Technical College System of Georgia, said many of the system’s students are “economically disadvantaged,” so not getting the full tuition from the HOPE grant is a major issue. That was particularly true during the Great Recession and its aftermath, when so many unemployed Georgians were returning to school to get more training.

“Anything that comes out of their pocket (for tuition) can be tough,” he said. “A lot of our students aren’t the ones looking for Mom and Dad to pay for their education, they are the moms and dads.”

Evans reviewed her proposal with Deal this week. At this time, the governor “is not there yet,” she said. A meeting with the Georgia Lottery Corp. is scheduled for next week.

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